Under the knife: Café Deco

Look at Anna Tobias’s Instagram and it is deliciously ugly. The queen of #beigefood, she’s a refreshing counter to the curated profiles of London’s leading culinary talent. There’s no portrait mode, no careful lighting, no considered plating and careful ceramic selection. Indeed, her trademark has become the Chartier plate.

It’s a neat embodiment of the food you’ll find at Café Deco, her Bloomsbury restaurant that opened in the heart of the pandemic in late 2020, a collaboration with the 40 Maltby Street team. On the quiet of Store Street, it glows welcomingly, with the soft light and a stripped-back feel under its soft green awning. But there’s an Old World classicism here, with white table cloths and tealights that feel reminiscent of a French bistro or Italian trattoria rather than modish London eatery.

The menu is hard to describe, at once determinedly British, yet with classical French and Italian influence running through it. Modern European is a disservice to this very gentle combination that seems both familiar and totally refreshing.

Flawless sourdough and creamy salted butter set the tone – offered here without an additional charge, a rarity beyond the most expensive establishments. Smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish chrain (£11) is a statement in simplicity: the pleasing chunk of mackerel closeted in its iridescent skin, bones and all, pertly placed alongside a pile of firm and flavoursome, vibrant beetroot cut by the fire of horseradish. A mouthful of the pumpkin caponata and baked ricotta (£12) offered the perfect balance of sweet and sour, with the soothing creaminess to balance its intensity.

Beef mince on dripping toast, watercress and pickled walnut (£25) cries out to me – and rightfully so on a wet and windy November evening. But this is no Quality Chop knock-off. The oblong of toast is crisp, the mince an honest and subtle alternative to its Farringdon friend – less decadent, rich and gout-inducing, yet no less comforting. A perfect pickled walnut provides the sharp bite to prevent the plate’s reassuring brown-ness becoming bland. Roast halibut, potatoes and salsa verde (£28) sees similar acclaim from my fellow diners.

Chocolate pudding pie (£9) was a triumph – the finest, crispest pastry shell holding an almost inappropriately good chocolate ganache, layered with an almost obscene volume of pillowy whipped cream: the ensemble is one of the sexiest puds you’ll ever eat. Apple charlotte and cream (£9) leaves a Lancashire-man speechless.

Everything is simple, modest, yet executed to the finest level. It’s cooking that speaks of Tobias’s CV so far, with Jeremy Lee, the River Café and Rochelle Canteen, not to mention the P. Franco residency that I still have FOMO about. It’s not cheap, but it’s also the sort of place where you can linger, you can hear everyone around the table, where napkins are weighty, there are plentiful coat hooks. These details are the thing that elevates this from just a nice restaurant to somewhere that you can see yourself returning to time and time again.

There is but one black mark against the place. The wine list, unfortunately, is for me the only downside. It’s the sort that is obfuscatingly, determinedly natural. And few bottles sit below the £50 mark, making most choices risky. The wait-staff were delightful, but I’m not convinced they’d be particularly helpful in guiding you to a safe choice. On the upside, corkage is available, at £25, which is worth doing if you plan to drink well.

Take a bottle, or just savour the joys of #beigefood pure – I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Café Deco, 43 Store Street, London WC1E 7DB


The year gone-by

While another year flies by, and I bid to make more of this site, a quick run-through of jottings past is due. Here is a short-list of the topics that I typed on in the not-so-recent months…

Keep an eye out for more soon.

Round-up time


The Spring/Summer 2017 issue of No.3, edited by me

Sheesh, how did it get to July? This blog has been long-neglected, so it’s time for an update on all that’s been in the four or so months gone-by.

Most recently, I’m still wanging on about California: here’s an overview for the uninitiated on why the Golden State is hot property for hip sommeliers right now – looking at how it got to where it is today. There are plenty of exciting wines that didn’t make it into the piece for one reason or another. Here are a few producers and bottles that should be on your radar: RPM Gamay, A Tribute to Grace Grenache (any of the different cuvées), Broc Cellars (a recent bottle of their 2014 Valdiguié was particularly pleasing), Matthiasson, Failla, Wind Gap, Domaine de la Côte Pinot, Sandhi… it’s fair to say I’m addicted. But you should be too.

It’s been a pretty great year for me so far. Although it’s been hectic and busy (Berry Bros. & Rudd’s stunner of a new shop at 63 Pall Mall certainly drained some of my time), I’ve been fortunate enough to have my writing acknowledged by people who seem to know about these things. Back in April I made it onto the long list for the Wine Writing Competition, seeing a couple of my pieces published to a broader audience than ever before. (Fortunately no trolling yet.) It was even more of a treat to receive an honourable mention when the final shortlist was selected. There are some great writers on that list, and I felt in good company. (Joss Fowler’s brilliantly un-grown-up, grown-up blog, Vinolent, is well worth a read.)


The luck seems to have continued, and last week my name made it onto the shortlist for the Emerging Writer of 2017 in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writer Awards. Worst case scenario, I’m looking forward to a glass or two of the outrageously delicious Brut Premier at the awards in September. A good friend of mine, the entirely dishonourable HoseMaster of Wine has been shortlisted for the second year in a row – you should check out his scathing pieces too.

And what else in terms of the doing, rather than basking in under-the-radar glory?

I’ve snuck in a couple more restaurant reviews under the guise of “work”: Rochelle Canteen – the BYO to end all BYOs (and one that is rumoured to be applying for a licence, so rush there now); and Plot, a bizarre little spot in Tooting that serves bloody good food and bloody good prices. What more do you want?

I also had the chance to talk to The Telegraph‘s wine columnist Victoria Moore about her new book, The Wine Dine Dictionary. I really didn’t expect to like it (and sort of hoped I wouldn’t), but my copy is already looking rather well thumbed.

In editing news, the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of No.3, Berry Bros. & Rudd’s biannual publication is out. You’ll find my name alongside the Editor’s letter and can unfortunately blame any typos on me. I interviewed the legend that is Dukes’s very own Alessandro Palazzi for the sidebar to this feature, which may or may not have ended in a stiff drink. You can pick up a copy at one of Berry Bros. & Rudd’s shops, or I’d be happy to pop one in the post for you – just send me a message.

I also cast my beady over the latest issue of Noble Rot before it made its way to print. By far the most enjoyable wine magazine out there – for any level of knowledge – it’s perfect Sunday brunch reading. Bloody Mary optional.


Under the knife: Aquavit


“Oh. My. God,” my friend says, seizing the two weighty slivers of cutlery in front of her, ogling them like Beyoncé had just sat down opposite her. “This is Georg Jensen cutlery. My Georg Jensen cutlery.” I, meanwhile, stare somewhat blankly at this reference to utensil fame, deeply impressed by her knowledge. She’s a woman of impeccable taste and I can only believe that this means something, to those who know about these things, the knife-and-fork elite.

The cutlery is just one element that adds to the oozingly luxurious feel of Aquavit, the newest Nordic addition to London’s restaurant scene. It’s hardly surprising, given its location just off Lower Regent Street, that this is a restaurant positioning itself at the very top end of the market, with prices to match. Classic Nordic cuisine with a modern edge is served in surprisingly generous portions, but some dishes are more successful than others. Mackerel tartare, sorrel and lumpfish roe was inspired; the shrimp Skagen was a posh (and overpriced) prawn cocktail on toast.

Read a full review, with the highlights of my meal, on here.

Sitting down with the Naked Chef

Jamie Oliver is studying the room, a PR machine whirling around him – photographers setting up in one corner, white-shirted chefs loading haunches of rare-breed meats into fridges, support teams juggling appropriately slim-line laptops and iPhones, a black-suited security team milling at the door. We’re sitting in the back corner of the new Barbecoa, a week before its official launch, chatting about the restaurant, the area, and how to stay ahead in the restaurant game.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the extraordinarily successful Naked Chef is a perfectionist. “I’m not quite happy with this room at the moment,” he muses, not particularly aimed at me. “I haven’t quite digested what I’m not happy about yet. I need to fix a few things.” This, combined with an expert entourage and a natural flair for self-marketing, has led to him becoming his very own, unique brand – one that is recognised and, for the most part, adored by anyone from the ages of 9 to 90.

Read my full interview with Oliver here on, with details of his newest venture and his thoughts on our evolving attitudes to food and drink.

Under the knife: The Clove Club


There’s a meal haunting me. I lie awake at night and lightly salivate as I dream of the numerous courses. I wake up anxious at the absence of duck, morel and ginger consommé, reaching for another sip of soup that isn’t there. It’s been three months, and I’m not sure how much longer I can handle these gustatory ghosts. It doesn’t help matters that 2017 has begun in a utilitarian, austerity-stricken manner – but, boy, were the excesses of 2016 worth it.

The meal in question was three months ago, my first trip to The Clove Club, a restaurant that feels so established on London’s scene that it’s almost passé to gush over its fabled dishes. Almost. But then you taste one mouthful of any of the nine courses that forms their extended tasting menu, and it’s clear that the world can indeed handle another five-star statement (alongside yet another Instagram of their irresistible basket of buttermilk chicken in pine salt).

Slipping through the pearly gates (alright, blue doors) of Shoreditch Town Hall, a magnificent structure perched on Old Street, you’re greeted by a window filled with home-cured haunches, hanging alluringly, just out of reach.

While things start to haze around the eighth or ninth course (chiming with the end of the second bottle and the arrival of the first in a series of glasses); it’s rare to recall a meal so distinctly. But that’s the power of the restaurant’s genuinely life-changing creations.

I’ve written about the food in some detail on – but, while you go for the food, the wine list is the best I’ve ever seen*. It’s interesting, varied, combining classics and unusual numbers with some under-the-radar bottles, without offering too much choice. It’s not cheap, but it’s not outrageous (and when you’re spending £110 per head on the food, that £70 bottle or £15 glass seems a minor addition).

We had a bottle of Sam Harrop’s taut Cedalion Chardonnay which gradually unwound over the first five courses, revealing a little more of its flesh, fruit and ageing potential. With the partridge we graduated to a bottle of 2001 Henschke Cyril Cabernet – a rich, gluttonous wine whose liquorous, Kirsch fruit was dark and dense, drowning all but the beef rump with Jerusalem artichoke, ceps and coffee. Of the two, the Cedalion was more to my taste; but you can’t deny that the Henschke was a great wine, just a bit brash and bulldozer-y. It would have been excellent with venison stew, thinking of it.

Today The Sunday Times declared The Clove Club to be Britain’s best restaurant; prompting my bid to vanquish my hunger-mares. Perhaps the only way to rid myself of such visions is to return, seeing if it really is as good as I remember.

*Andrew Edmunds is another contender, but of a different sort, and one I’m hoping to revisit soon.

Under the knife: Portland


Thanks to a series of misappointed associates, I had – regrettably – been forced to cancel the first three bookings I made for Portland in early 2015. Before it got a Michelin star. Before everyone knew about it. And before the prices went up.

But, better late than never. So, 14 months down the road, I went, I ate, I drank and now I’m going to bore you all about it, because it is as good as everyone says it is.

The menu is neatly divided into snacks, first courses, mains and sides (with – obviously – pudding later). A series of snacks arrived looking beautifully neat, moreish – two morsels that divided neatly between two. White truffle and Gruyère macarons (£3) melted in the mouth, a surprisingly sweet shell balanced by just the right amount of cheese and the slightest hint of truffle. Squid toast, brown crab green asparagus (£3) disappeared in a mouthful and a half. Native lobster, red miso and daikon rolls (£4) were gloriously fresh tasting.

Poitou asparagus, girolles, preserved lemon and almonds (£12) was earthy and fresh, while my rump cap tartare, new season beetroots, smoked yoghurt (£12) looked unerringly good – a platter of blood-red protein that felt so deliciously iron-filled; a bowl of sweet, strengthening goodness. A side of sweet potato was underwhelming, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth softness but under-seasoned and unexciting.

The grand finale was Portland chocolate bar, peanut butter croustillant (£9) – the soothing salty ice cream cutting through the dark, dense chocolate, and a touch of caramel to round things out.

With such vinous lineage (owner Will Lander is Jancis Robinson MW’s son), I was excited about the list. I nailed a copita of Fino swiftly on arrival, but drinking alone (and cycling) I indulged in just one glass from their “special” list – 2007 Morgeot, Premier Cru, Chassagne-Montrachet, J.N. Gagnard (£19 – whoops). It was rich, heady, contemplative and all that I needed – but, alas, a little tight. With time I’m certain that it would have been utterly bewitching, but I couldn’t offer it any more.

And therein lies the issue with not getting a bottle. With a bottle, you have the first glass to ease into, to look one another up and down; you have the second glass to muse over, potentially to fall in love with; and the third in which to simply languish, to bathe indulgently in (or, if it’s a total disappointment – to reserve for cooking and move on to pastures greener). That’s why you need a drinking companion. All boozers should come in twos.

Even without a partner to halve a bottle (which perhaps was wise considering the price tags), Portland is worth the fuss. The service was impeccable, the atmosphere easy, the food just the right balance between creative and comforting. I may have been a year and a half behind the crowd, but cor, is it still good.

Portland, 113 Great Portland Street W1W 6QQ

Under the knife: Frenchie


Having commissioned one of the Berry Bros. & Rudd team to write a review of this new Covent Garden spot, and subsequently read, edited and published with outrageous envy what an utterly wonderful time they had, I was determined to make a visit myself.

Anticipation was high. Not only had I been salivating at my keyboard for weeks over Guy Davies’s review, but there seemed to be an incessant stream of Instagram posts praising the establishment, each taunting me with glimpses of the ever-changing menu. Under two months after it opened, I struggled to book a table for two a fortnight ahead of the planned date. Clearly, this Parisian export was doing something right.

Unassumingly positioned somewhere between a heaving All Bar One and Fred Perry on Henrietta Street, it’s surprising to happen upon such a little sophistiqué spot that provides a civilised oasis from the crowds of Covent Garden’s uncouth. That said, it might be a touch hard to “happen” upon at all, as I managed to walk past it twice with the aid of Google Maps. Bearing in mind the indulgence that was to come, the exercise was probably wise.

The simple décor looked a little sparse in photos, perhaps a hint too Scandi, but it feels warmer than it looks – particularly downstairs where you can nuzzle the kitchen, eying up the dishes being whisked to other tables. The staff were supremely friendly, appropriately attentive without being imposing, offering just the right amount of advice and information.

Then – of course – there’s the food. We started with bacon scones, maple syrup & seasoned Cornish clotted cream (£4). Phwoar – the sweet-savoury balance was bang on, and I could have wolfed at least another two. Next came the smoked Arctic char tartare, chive & kalamata bergamot (£12), a recommendation from our waiter, which arrived rather gaudily – a purple flower posing raunchily on a voluptuous pile of green gloup that lay on the fish itself. Despite its slightly gareish appearance, this was unbelievably good: fresh, moreish with a wonderful citric tang. Lamb ragu pappardelle, confit lemon, kalamata olive & espelette (£14) was difficult to share, richly comforting. Perhaps we’d had enough by this point, but we plumped for Mesquer’s farm pigeon, beetroot, kumquat & sumac (£23) which slipped down rather easily. We sipped on a rather intriguing carafe of Vespaiolo – surprisingly Sémillon-like, lemon-layered with a waxy feel that was terribly refreshing; then moved onto a Barbera which was a little ripe, but perfectly acceptable. We finished with banoffee, nutmeg (£9), seriously spooning it up and savouring its spiced sweetness.

It may not have been cheap, but, quite frankly, Frenchie was fantastic: the best meal I’ve had in London for a long time. Go, book – before there is a six-month waiting list, a Michelin star and a price hike.

Frenchie, 16 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH